Regional Board Releases First Draft of Expanded Irrigated Lands Program

July 1, 2012

The expanded Irrigated Lands Program will require every grower who irrigates to participate in a local water quality coalition, or individually meet groundwater monitoring requirements.The Central Valley Regional Water Quality Control Board is working with individual water quality coalitions to develop regionally specific regulations for an expanded Irrigated Lands Program that will include groundwater monitoring for nitrates, salts and other contaminants.

In May, Regional Board staff released a preliminary draft of its proposed Irrigated Lands Program for the East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition (ESJWQC), which covers the area east of the San Joaquin River within Madera, Merced, Stanislaus, Tuolumne and Mariposa Counties. It is expected that this first draft will provide a model for additional monitoring and reporting in other water quality coalitions throughout the Central Valley.

The expanded program will require every grower who irrigates farmland to participate in a local water quality coalition, or individually meet monitoring requirements under the program — a cost-prohibitive option for most growers. It is currently estimated that only about half of growers on irrigated acreage are members of a coalition.

Even with the added membership, it is clear that the cost of belonging to a coalition will increase as coalitions raise assessments to meet increased regulations. In addition to the added groundwater requirements, the Regional Board has suggested it will require coalitions to determine which pesticides or other constituents are being used in the respective watersheds, and devise an appropriate monitoring plan.  This would mean identifying the top pesticides used, when used, toxicity and potential for runoff, and monitoring to find if they get into surface water.

In addition, the new program is likely to bring significant change to how growers manage their nitrogen fertilizers. Under the new Irrigated Lands Program, each grower will be expected to review his or her fertilizer practices and develop and implement a nutrient management plan to reduce potential groundwater impacts.  Regional Board is considering a requirement that specially certified outside crop advisers sign off on nutrient plans in groundwater protection zones and other areas where groundwater is deemed vulnerable to nitrate and other contaminants. Currently some 50% of the Central Valley is likely to be considered vulnerable.

Regional Board staff received public comment on its East San Joaquin Water Quality Coalition preliminary draft in late May. The official public draft was expected to be released by the end of June, with a 30-day public comment period open until July 31. Growers are encouraged to read and provide public comment on the draft on the Regional Board website.

Based on those comments, staff will submit a formal proposal to the Board for adoption in early October, with regulations phased in over a two- or three-year period. Regional drafts for additional coalitions are also being developed on a staggered scheduled over the next 15 months.

ESJWQC held three meetings in June to update its members and local growers about the new proposed regulations covering groundwater and nitrates.

“This new program is going to impact all farming operations in the Central Valley,” said Wayne Zipser, director of Stanislaus County Farm Bureau and an ESJWQC board vice chairman. “Nitrates in groundwater are in part being attributed to farming practices, and we are determined to show the public and Regional Water Board that we are protective of groundwater resources. Our job as the coalition is to develop a workable program to provide information to support that claim and do it in the most cost-effective way.”